Bruce Moats' retirement blows another hole through the fraying fabric of Wyoming journalism
March 16, 2023
Bruce Moats has been accused of never having met a document that shouldn't be public or a meeting that shouldn't be open.
"Largely I plead guilty to that, though not totally," the grayed, wiry 66-year-old Cheyenne attorney said.
Moats' mindset and bias toward transparency was born partly from his upbringing, he said. Growing up in a massive family, with 10 kids, decision-making was a collective effort. Functioning as a family wouldn't have worked, he said, "unless all of us [knew] what's going on.
"That just makes such simple sense to me," Moats said, "I find it astounding I have to argue about it sometimes."
Moats thought back on his life and career as the chatter of dozens of journalists permeated a fast-filling ballroom at the Little America hotel in Cheyenne. The babbling scribes, photographers and publishers were assembled for the Wyoming Press Association's final salute to the late Jim Angell, a longtime AP Bureau chief and WPA executive director who advocated alongside Moats for decades for open Wyoming government.
Now Moats, too, is leaving. After 40 or so WPA conventions, it's "probably my last," he said.
The longtime legal counsel for Wyoming's fourth estate is forthcoming about why he's stepping away. His 13-year-old granddaughter, Lily Alicia Gomez Moats, has battled aplastic anemia - a potentially life-threatening condition that has channeled her grandpa's "fight" away from his profession.
"It's just this constant pressure that's changed me," Moats said of Lily's anemia. "I just don't have the gumption to fight - not in a fisticuff way - but just standing strong and saying, 'You can't do this.' I just don't have it."
But fight, Moats did. The journalist-turned-attorney is retiring from a four-decades-long battle for the public's right to know. It's a safe bet to say he knows the Wyoming Public Records Act better than anybody. He's repeatedly brought newspapers' disputes all the way to the Wyoming Supreme Court, where he amassed nine victories to only three losses. And Moats has provided a voice, calling for transparency, for generations of Wyoming journalists who are being shut out or stonewalled.
"When I was a reporter, I always sided with openness, but didn't really have anybody to say it," Moats said. "You can't quote yourself. So I became that [voice for others]."
A job offer from the then-publisher of the Lovell Chronicle, Pat Schmidt, introduced Moats, a native of Montana, to Wyoming.
Faced with a small editorial staff, Moats pretty much wrote the whole paper. But the duo had to get creative in their effort to chronicle life in Big Horn County while staying true to journalistic ethics and standards, Schmidt said.
"Right off the bat I got crazy and I decided to run for school board," Schmidt said. "Bruce and I, we worked out a deal where he would cover the school board meetings and I wouldn't edit his stories."
In Schmidt's estimation, Moats was a stud reporter. He got a tip and broke the news when charges were being filed against John Story, the town doctor, in a case that ultimately revealed the family physician sexually assaulted legions of Lovell women.
"All of our friends - Bruce's friends, my friends - were behind the doctor," Schmidt recalled. "But he reported on it and kept on it and did a great job."
Story spent 16 years in prison.
Next stop was Sheridan. It was the late 1980s, and Moats was hired as a reporter but rose to become the editor of the Sheridan Press. Around this time, he'd doubled down on his love of the profession, marrying a fellow journalist, a photographer named Cecilia Ontiveroz.
"We got married in the Sheridan Press," Moats said. "Milton Chilcott was the publisher and he agreed to it. He got the champagne for us, too."
The pivot away from hands-on journalism came in Moats' early 30s. Moving to Laramie for a communications job at the University of Wyoming, he had his sights set on law school. All along his interest was in standing up for the First Amendment, an inkling he had early on in life.
"Free speech is really about free thought," Moats said. "They want to control your speech because they want to control your thinking. They want to control how much information you have to control your thinking and control your thoughts. And that's something that's always rubbed against my brain. I don't want somebody trying to control me."
Moats could have chased down the big bucks. "He graduated at the top of his class at UW," Schmidt said.
Instead, he opted for civil rights and media law. It happened organically.
"Newspaper people just kind of knew me," Moats said. "So they started calling me."
Eventually, for a $2,500 annual retainer, Moats became the official attorney for the Wyoming Press Association. Under the arrangement he'd take any reporter's phone calls via the "hotline" (really just his office or cell phone) and give advice. Although he'd bill media outlets and WPA for additional work, like letter writing or court appearances, there was an unavoidable opportunity cost to channeling his lawyering toward journalism - a profession rolling in ink, but not so much dough.
"I've given away a lot to the press and the association on non-hotline issues, but it's a labor of love," Moats said. "And I've been able to make a sufficient living for my family."
Until 2015, Moats was also a lobbyist for WPA. It was a role he played for 15 years or so, and it had him guarding against state laws that inhibit the free flow of information. He wasn't always successful, like when the Wyoming Legislature exempted itself from the Wyoming Public Records Act.
Moats was following the legislation (nearly two decades later he immediately remembered the bill number) when he caught word of an impromptu, secretive House committee hearing that was being held to advance the measure.
"A Capitol employee who shall remain unnamed tipped me off that they were going to meet in the basement of the Capitol underneath the attorney general's office," Moats said. "It was a room that was unfinished, with pipes all over. Jim Angell and I were sitting in that room when they filed in. That's one of my cherished memories, the looks on their faces."
Although it was his job, it "wasn't easy" to go in a room of 20 people and admonish them for meeting like that. Confrontations of that nature, being the "skunk at the picnic," didn't always come painlessly for Moats. He recalled another time, in Big Horn County, where public officials were meeting secretly and he pulled the same move - showing up anyway.
"Then they were going to go into executive session and I said, 'No, I don't think you can do that," Moats recalled. "It wasn't easy for me to do, I just knew I had to do it."
The Big Horn County officials adjourned rather than conduct their business in front of Moats.
Over the decades, Moats scored plenty of victories for the public's right to know.
After moving on to become publisher of the Thermopolis Independent Record, Schmidt recalled enlisting the help of his former reporter in a case where the Hot Springs County sheriff and county attorney decided they no longer had to reveal who was being held in jail.
"We took them on and persevered with a little bit of financial help from the Press Association," Schmidt said. "It was all Bruce. Boy did he do a job on it."
The county attorney got voted out in the next election, he said, and public officials were leery of taking on the Thermopolis Independent Record for years to come.
In 2019 and 2020, Moats sued the University of Wyoming, and won, on behalf of WyoFile, the Casper Star-Tribune and Cheyenne's Wyoming Tribune Eagle when trustees refused to share records related to the sudden dismissal of President Laurie Nichols. The case set a precedent by challenging an often-used, overly broad interpretation of personnel-file exemptions to public records laws.
That was Moats' role: The go-to source for Wyoming journalists up against a wall.
WyoFile reporter Angus M. Thuermer Jr., a longtime editor for the Jackson Hole News and, later, News&Guide, guesses he made roughly quarterly calls to Moats when in a bind.
At the Casper Star Tribune, former editor Dan Neal also leaned into the WPA's legal counsel time and again.
"We talked to Bruce a lot, more than you'd think would be necessary," Neal said. "Bruce was always there to give you the language you needed to make it clear - whether it was to a city official, or a state official - that the law required them to make information available to the public."
Moats' other role was as an educator, Neal said. Along with Jim Angell, he gave seminars around the state, teaching public officials about the Wyoming Public Records Act, public meetings laws and the public's right to access information.
Nowadays, the whole institution is on the backslide. Wyoming newspapers have trimmed down for years, a dynamic that hastened during the pandemic. Angell died last summer. Moats is retiring. Wyoming journalism is lacking much of the infrastructure it relied on for years to stand up for itself. When bills that may infringe on the press' First Amendment rights are moving through the statehouse, there's been no one there to push back.
"Shared truth" born from "grinding journalism," like reporters sitting in city council meetings, has suffered, Moats estimates.
"That's scary to me," he said. "Now it's more the government dispensing the information, putting it up on their website, their Facebook pages. That's what we have to rely on. Experience tells me that's not a good thing."
Moats is migrating back to Montana, drawn toward siblings who still live in the vicinity of the family ranch where he will live. His Cheyenne office is emptied and the plan is to sell his Wyoming house. He'll again be a regular consumer of his hometown paper, the Mineral Independent, and maybe even a contributing reporter.
"Just for fun," Moats said. "I enjoyed being a reporter."
First, however, there's some unfinished business in Wyoming. There's a couple pending cases he's litigating, both journalism related. One is a challenge of ordinances that Mills and Bar Nunn passed, exempting themselves from having to publish public notices in the newspaper of record.
The other is a dispute Moats entered into on behalf of the Newcastle News Letter Journal, challenging the "secret ballot" Weston County commissioners used to find a replacement for former Rep. Hans Hunt (R-Newcastle). Through discovery, Moats learned that the county commissioners had been communicating via a group text thread in alleged violation of Wyoming Public Meetings Act regulations. He even found evidence that they were voting via text message.
"They voted on some payment authorizations," Moats said. "Most of them were pretty small [amounts], but still ..."
At least one group of Weston County residents, he said, are "upset" at the secret voting. That sentiment has been a common thread Moats has observed throughout his career.
"People care about open government, they do," Moats said. "Time and time again, people have said to me, 'We're happy for what you're doing. Keep doing it. It's important.'"